To the Author of “The Journey of the Learned Doctor Leonardo…”

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My Hero,

Dear Maik,

My Writer,

Hi Maik,

Dear Maik Yohansen,

You don’t know me. I was born many years after your death. Your death was tragic. Your death was unfair and unnecessary. You were executed by the Soviet NKVD on the bogus charge of belonging to a fictitious “Ukrainian bourgeois-nationalist terrorist organisation”. That was the charge often relied upon by the Soviet government to justify executing our Ukrainian people. They shot you in the Lukyanivska Prison, in Kyiv, on 27 October 1937. Yes, you were murdered one day short of reaching your 42nd year. 

Could you have imagined?..

Could you have imagined that now in 2022, 85 years after your death, the Russians would still use “nationalism” as an excuse to kill Ukrainians? Only this time they don’t bother attempting to legitimise their genocide. The Russians are bombing our cities indiscriminately, killing thousands and thousands of innocent civilians, including children. 

Could you have imagined that your beloved Kharkiv, the city of your birth, and where you lived most of your life, would be the first to be shelled by the Russians on the 24th of February 2022? Kharkiv is almost destroyed, but we will rebuild it as soon as we free Ukraine from the Russian invaders.

Could you have imagined that before the Russian war in Ukraine, many Ukrainian residents would choose Russian as their everyday language? Remember, you witnessed atrocities committed by the Denikin (Russian) army, when in 1919 it occupied Kharkiv? Remember, then and there you decided to quit writing in Russian and after that you wrote all your works in Ukrainian? Perhaps, you’d be pleased to know that many Ukrainians now choose to forget Russian and speak their native Ukrainian.

Translating “The Journey of the Learned Doctor Leonardo…”

You might wonder how I came to know you… I translated your famous work “The Journey of the Learned Doctor Leonardo…” into English. I could never have achieved the result I did without the help of two wonderful men, Professor Marko Pavlyshyn and Christian Ryan.

First of all, I must confess that the translation of your novel was the hardest one I’ve ever done. However, it shouldn’t come as a surprise to you. While writing that novel, you were amusing yourself by bending the rules of literary writing and experimenting with the language. You allowed yourself liberties that only a few other wordsmiths would allow themselves. Take for example the words you invented: 

“A fantastic children’s book took him into the legendary forest of memories. Joyful butterbearers fluttered and tweeted among the emerald leaves of the legendary forest; in a dark stream, under the overhanging roots of black trees, a milktorrent dug a burrow for himself, making piles of velvet soil; on a green strip at the forest’s edge frisky breadhorners danced, butted one another and ran rapidly into the field…” 

By the way, the title you gave your novel – was it just to tease the reader? To test their memory? The original title contains 13 words: “Подорож ученого доктора Леонардо і його майбутньої коханки прекрасної Альчести у Слобожанську Швайцарію” (“The Journey of the Learned Doctor Leonardo and His Future Lover, the Beauteous Alceste, to the Switzerland of Slobozhanshchyna”).

Pure boldness or utter foolishness?

Ukrainian novelist Maik Johansen, author of Dr. Leonardo's Journey with His Future Lover, the Beautiful Alcesta to Sloboda Switzerland
Maik Johansen, author of “The Journey of the Learned Doctor Leonardo…”

Reading your novel in some instances I paused gasping – how could you write things like that in times like that? Was it boldness on your part? Or foolishness? Or a rush of adrenalin? During those moments, in my mind I begged you to rethink, not to write the things you did, not to anger the monster who would then destroy you. As if my pleas could have been heard… Did you think you were invincible? I realise you were writing your novel in 1928–1933, just a few years before the beginning of the Great Purge (1936–1938). Couldn’t you, such an intelligent man, sense what the Soviet government was capable of? 

You taunted the proletarian Soviet government: 

“…the good style, brilliant storyline and tension in a literary work, all achieved by the bourgeoisie by dint of hard work, would flow spontaneously from the proletariat’s pen as soon as the proletariat, having acquainted itself with Kovalenko’s course of political studies, took to the task of writing fiction.”

“A tale is told about a company of fun-loving young men, members of the feudal class and bourgeoisie, who travelled across the territory of the former Russian empire to determine precisely and in detail which is the best zakuska for horilka… One can hardly hope that the aesthetically insensitive, utilitarian Soviet government will give money for this valuable scientific research.”

You ridiculed the Russians by differentiating between them and Ukrainians living in neighbouring settlements, by reporting that every Russian there suffered from syphilis:

“Syphilis is most common in villages by the Uda River – Russian villages, where no one is free of this illness… But Zmiiv is a relatively recent colony of western Ukrainians and there is no syphilis here.”

You had the nerve to call the Russian Empress Catherine II the name which many thought of her but dared not call her:

“…the magnificent world whore Tsaritsa Catherine”.

***

You might wonder how your books are doing nowadays. They have survived. Well, there are not many first editions left, since your works were banned for many years. But now your books have been reprinted and they are read. And we, the lovers of literature, enjoy your works tremendously. Meanwhile, you are probably having the time of “your life”. Remember your plans for the after-life: 

“…when I settle in the kingdom of shadows, I will hold intelligent conversations with Hesiod, Heine and Miguel Saavedra Cervantes. But I will speak with them in Ukrainian since I believe our beautiful Motherland to be a diamond among the free nations of the world. And I will also tell them, in the kingdom of shadows, that I, Maik Yohansen, was one of the greatest poets of the revived Ukrainian land in my lifetime and will remain such after my death.”